Spirit of the North



In Reflections from the North Country, Sigurd Olson spoke of his lifelong admiration for Robert Service, the bard of frontier Alaska. Service wrote poems that sometimes even a century later are read to schoolchildren, such as “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” Olson loved to recite Service’s poems, and in his writings sometimes quoted parts of them, such as these lines from the end of “The Call of the Wild:”

There’s a whisper in the night-wind, there’s a star agleam to guide us,

And the Wild is calling, calling—let us go.

“Somehow in his poems,” Sigurd wrote in Reflections, “ he caught the spirit of the North, the cold, suffering, and hardship in pursuit of some bonanza….Some call them crude unlettered doggerel and perhaps they are right, but he touches the hearts of men and for that he will live on as long as Alaskan wilderness remains.”

Ever since I first began my research for Sigurd’s biography more than a dozen years ago, I have run into many people who quote from his writings the way he quoted from Robert Service’s poems. There are many favorites: “The movement of a canoe is like a reed in the wind;” “Over all was the silence of the wilderness, that sense of oneness which comes only when there are no distracting sights or sounds, when we listen with inward ears and see with inward eyes;” “Every bit of water had turned to gold and, as the valley darkened, it looked as if molten metal had been spilled and dribbled over the black velvet of the land. “ Some especially like his descriptions of nature, others recall his most philosophical musings, and still others recite lines about camping, canoeing, or fishing. All of them would say about Sigurd Olson what he said about Robert Service, that “he left a feeling for the land and captured its lure as no other man has ever done.” Like Robert Service, Sigurd Olson captured the spirit of the North—the Far North of Alaska and Canada, and especially the more accessible North of the Quetico-Superior canoe country of northern Minnesota and Ontario.

Olson not only captured the spirit, to many he is the Spirit of the North. He was the most beloved wilderness advocate of his generation, and his name and image evoked strong feelings. Often photographed with a pipe in his hand and a warm yet reflective expression on his weathered face, he was more than a hero of the wilderness preservation movement—he was an icon. His books were read on public radio, his portrait was taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine, and awards almost routinely came his way. Today, more than twenty years after his death, the popularity of his biography and the continuing sales of his own writings indicate a resurgence of interest in Sigurd Olson and the potential for a new generation to read his works and be drawn to the North as were countless others before them.

This book will give both the newcomer and the longtime fan a good sense of Sigurd Olson the man, as well as excerpts from some of his best nature writing and key statements of his wilderness philosophy. The quotes come not only from his books and magazine articles, but also from his journals, letters and speeches. The idea is not simply to provide quotes that are memorable for their prose or for their philosophical power, but to give you a sense of Sigurd’s development over time as a person, as a writer, as a conservationist and as a wilderness philosopher. Each chapter, therefore, focuses on a key aspect of his life or beliefs. Most chapters have several categories that relate to the overall topic, and quotes are arranged chronologically within each category so you can more easily see his development over time. Some quotes, of course, could fit into more than one category; I simply placed these where I thought they would do the most good. If I have chosen well, perhaps you will understand why I, like many others, could take Sigurd’s words about Robert Service, change them just a little, and apply them to him: He touches our hearts, and for that he will live on as long as wilderness remains.